An increasing number of parents carry their children, rather than put them in strollers. But the doctor who popularized the parenting method is under siege.
A plethora of parents and babies are out in the East Bay, taking walks, playing in parks, and singing at music classes. But if you take a closer look, you’ll find that lots of parents on Telegraph and Shattuck avenues these days are not pushing their babes in strollers.
Instead, a large percentage of moms and dads are practicing attachment parenting techniques: carrying their babies close to their bodies, in slings, Baby Bjorns, or Ergo packs.
My husband and I carried our children, who are now 11 and 14, for years. My husband still lights up when he talks about walking into flower shops and small grocery stores with our oldest daughter when she was months old, proudly wearing her on his chest in a Bjorn. “She would just smile and start babbling with everyone in the stores,” he said, attributing her outgoing outlook on life to her early interactions at eye-level with adults.
That form of being close to your child, in the most literal and physical sense of the word, is an age-old philosophy dating back to long before strollers were invented. But in the past 10 to 15 years, this form of attachment parenting has been largely popularized by Dr. William Sears, a pediatrician and author of numerous parenting books who is considered a guru of teaching parents how to connect with their children.
We followed the Sears method to a tee with our daughter. We read his books and applied his methods. Not only did we wear our daughter and rock her to sleep each night in a sling, we slept with her in our bed, and I breast fed her until she was more than 2 years old.
At least for me, Sears’ main message is “listen to your children,” and see what it is that they really need.
That’s why, when I sensed our son didn’t want to be held as much, I set him down to play on his own a lot more than I did with my daughter. He also didn’t want to sleep with us at night as a baby, and so we kept him in a co-sleeper near our bed. He, too, is an extroverted, fun-loving middle schooler, albeit with a tad more hesitation in some social situations.
Today, Sears’ philosophy of attachment parenting seems to be resonating more than ever with parents, especially in the progressive East Bay. However, Sears’ himself has come under siege because the Southern California pediatrician last year found himself at risk of losing his medical license for exempting a toddler from all vaccines without adequately documented medical reasons.
The specific charges Sears faced in 2016 were gross negligence, repeated negligent acts, and failure to maintain adequate and accurate records, according to a complaint brought by Kimberly Kirchmeyer, executive director of the Medical Board of California.
A spokesperson for Sears responded to media requests for comment with a statement that Sears is not commenting at this time on the charges. And there are still plenty of anti-vaxx parents who consider him a hero.
As of August, medical records showed Sears’ license was renewed and is in good standing. No disciplinary actions were taken against him, either, license board records show.
Still, just because Sears offered wisdom that has gained widespread acceptance on one topic but is on the losing end of another doesn’t mean all his theories should be dismissed, said Berkeley-based family coach Rebecah Freeling. “You won’t find anyone on Earth who disagrees with the notion that kids need connection in order to thrive,” she said.
But, she added, a healthy dose of skepticism is needed with any topic and any expert, no matter how smart they are. Even some aspects of attachment parenting, according to Freeling, simply won’t work with all children.
“We can get a little guru-worshippy with anybody and give up our own decision-making ability,” Freeling said. “There are radical attachment parents, too.”
Freeling works with families who have highly temperamental children, ones who derive pleasure from creating chaos and acting out. Her mission is to teach parents and children how to negotiate compromises together but to give parents the ultimate power to mete out consequences if those agreements aren’t kept.
She said that “a weakness of attachment parenting is that parents can feel really bad about themselves if their children don’t respond to ‘warm fuzzies.’ Parents put it all on themselves. They think, ‘I didn’t sing enough. I didn’t cuddle enough. My child must be mentally ill.’ But sometimes there is just more that is needed.”
Freeling feels that Sears didn’t really address what happens if children don’t want to be worn and snuggled. And sending children to therapy isn’t necessarily the answer either, Freeling said, because there is nothing “wrong” with them, other than that they don’t respond to Sears’ methods.
Freeling’s methodology is for parents and children to come up with a plan together (such as a 20-minute bedtime ritual with two books and one song, as opposed to an hourslong ordeal) and then the child will suffer the consequences (a bath toy is taken away for each minute over the limit) if the deal isn’t met.
Freeling’s advice doesn’t necessarily negate Sears’ attachment style. It merely expands on it for children who don’t fit a particular mold. “Figure out what your child is motivated by and give it to them,” she said. “A lot of kids want control. You can give them control by not giving up authority. Some kids want a strong leader more than a fuzzy nurturer. If you strengthen your leadership, your connection improves.”
Remember, she said, “There’s more than one way to connect.”